Constantines: Hard Feelings

By: Jeff Terich

Constantines by Dustin Rabin
Constantines have all the makings of a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band. Since emerging with their self-titled debut album in 2001, the Toronto band has drawn comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, their earnest, hard rocking approach and frontman Bry Webb‘s soulful bellow sounding something like a more modern, post-hardcore influenced take on The Boss’ blue collar anthems.

Seven years after that debut album, Constantines sound bigger, more confident and more classic than ever. With the release of their fourth album, Kensington Heights (released April 29 on Arts & Crafts), Webb, guitarist Steve Lambke, keyboardist Will Kidman, bassist Dallas Wehrle and drummer Doug McGregor unleash their most ambitious and sprawling set of songs to date.

While Kensington Heights isn’t necessarily the band’s loudest, hardest or most intense album, it contains an upfront urgency and accessibility. Songs like “Hard Feelings,” “Credit River” and “Trans Canada” show the band at their most incendiary, standing up to the most explosive songs from previous albums. “We wanted to write a bunch of fast punk rock tunes,” Lambke says. “We didn’t exactly follow through with that, but it got us going. It almost happened.”

In contrast, 2005’s Tournament of Hearts was a bit noisier, but its bluesy, plodding dirges lent it an air of abstraction and distance, which in turn was a sharp move away from the fierce, Fugazi-like Shine a Light. In the band’s canon, Kensington Heights has a unique position, presenting Constantines at their most accessible but also hinting at the full spectrum of their sound.

“We had sort of turned from [Tournament of Hearts],” Lambke says. “For the fun of it, we learned a few of the old songs, and it was really fun playing those sorts of songs. It’s all sort of informed by what we do in the meantime. It [Kensington Heights] ended up being really another step in the progression of the band. I don’t think it fully circled back to the beginning. It kind of contains elements of everything we’ve done, but with new stuff as well.

Constantines by 5500
To coincide with the release of Kensington Heights, Constantines issued a seven-inch single featuring a cover of the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ classic “Islands In The Stream.” The cover finds Webb singing the duet with indie pop diva and sometime Broken Social Scene member Leslie Feist. An odd choice though it may be, the group had actually come up with the idea some time ago.

“We had sorta been talking about it for a long time,” Lambke says. “We knew Feist through some mutual friends. It was on a mix CD that someone sent us. In Europe, we played it before and after shows. We just thought it would be fun, so we asked Feist to be Dolly to [Bryan’s] Kenny.”

Webb is the band’s primary vocalist but Lambke occasionally steps behind the microphone to deliver his own lyrics with his throaty rasp. On Shine A Light he delivered the abrasive “Scoundrel Babes,” while on Tournament he contributed both the quiet “Windy Road” and the hard groove of “Thieves.” Now on Kensington Heights, “Shower of Stones” reveals a Sonic Youth-like contrast to some of the more straightforward rockers on the album. According to Lambke, the group dynamic allows for more experimentation with roles within the band.

“I write the ones that I sing,” Lambke explains. “The ones that I sing are the ones that I’ve written that are a little more complete. But, if we’re coming out of a jam, and I say ‘I wanna try something with this,’ that opportunity’s there for anyone in the band. Anything goes.”

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We’re a live band and that’s how we think about ourselves. We write songs with the elements we have available to us. Our songs are written to be played by the five of us. They have to be songs you’d want to play live. That’s the primary way we think about it.

Steve Lambke

Those who have witnessed the Constantines live can testify to their awesome presence. Even when playing a ballad, the group tears through with maximum intensity, never detracting from the original recording’s sound, but merely distilling its impact into a more potent force. And with the rockers, the group is nothing short of a maelstrom. Whether intentional or not, that live experience informs their recorded output.

“I think we’re always both conscious and unconscious about how something translates live,” Lambke says. “We’re a live band and that’s how we think about ourselves. We write songs with the elements we have available to us. Our songs are written to be played by the five of us. They have to be songs you’d want to play live. That’s the primary way we think about it.”

Keeping up the band’s live intensity can be difficult, however, especially when presented with a roadblock such as a broken bone. Before SXSW, Lambke sustained an injury that found his arm wrapped in a cast during the Austin music conference. Even with this setback, he soldiered on, not content to let it become an obstacle to rocking out. “I had a broken bone in my left hand,” Lambke recalls. “It was really frustrating. But I’m happy to be playing, and I can move normally now.”

Constantines’ previous two albums were issued on Sub Pop, and the Seattle indie giant also reissued the group’s self-titled debut, originally released on Canadian label Three Gut. However, for album number four the Cons made the shift to Arts & Crafts, which operates on the band’s home turf of Toronto and boasts a roster comprising Stars, Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos! and Feist.

“The deal with Sub Pop was up, and our relationship with them was really good,” Lambke says. “But, we thought we’d see what was available. Our Canadian label, Three Gut, had folded. So, we met with Arts & Crafts, who are based out of Toronto, and they had started around the same time our band started. So, we were on parallel paths. There are some advantages to being on a Canadian label.”

Many of the elements that defined the band from their humble Guelph, Ontario, beginnings are still firmly in place. Yet given the evolution from the first album to the fourth, it’s clear that the Constantines have undergone a gradual but ongoing series of changes throughout their career. Lambke notes that while the band has progressed, some things feel very much the same as they were eight years ago.

“We’re more or less doing this full time now,” Lambke says. “When we started, we were all in school and had jobs. We were a scrappy punk rock band then, and we’re kind of still a scrappy punk rock band now – just not as scrappy and with more guitar solos and a keyboard player. Things change in such small degrees that you don’t even notice it. But I think we’re a better band, and I feel good about the music we’re making.”

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